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In the shade of Katla

The first two nights we spent in the vicinity of the Alvidruhamrar lighthouse had two things in common, we wanted to leave as soon as possible, and we were not impressed by the black sand and landscape covered in low clouds of rain, and wind. Before we started to paddle in Iceland and before we tackled the south coast, we were looking at the maps a lot trying to picture how the area would look like and what might be like to live there. The reality completely overwhelmed us. Despite the fact that we never resumed our kayaking from the Alvidruhamrar lighthouse, we feel very fortunate to be able to spent so many days in this region and explore it with the help of Kidda and Siggi.

We were in the land of ice and fire. The glacier, Mýrdalsjökull, could be seen clearly in a distance. Underneath is the volcano, Katla. Together they have been shaping the landscape into a mixture of lakes, meadows, powerful glacial rivers, lava fields, waterfalls, and black sandy beaches.

The day after we arrived to the farm and hostel Nona and Brynjuhus at Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Kidda took us to a nearby town, then gave us her car so we could explore further. We went to a canyon Fjaðrárgljúfur. It’s 100 metres deep and 2 kilometres long created by water erosion. 

In a strong contrast to the green rocky landscape is Myrdarsandur, where most glacial rivers of this area reach the sea. It is an ever changing landscape, in the past, the rivers formed large estuaries, and ocean going vessels could sail up the rivers further inland. The little church in Þykkvabæjarklaustur in Álftaver stands on the former location of a monastery founded in 1168 close to which the ships could sail. 

This area has been affected by many eruptions, mainly of Katla, which so far erupted 21 times, last one in 1918. The story of Katla says that in the time of the monastery Katla was a kitchen maid, and a witch. She had magic breeches, which allowed her to run very fast without getting tired. Most people, including the abbot, were afraid of her temper and powers. One day Katla and abbot went away to a market, and Bardi, a shepherd at the monastery was meant to herd all the sheep. Unfortunately he was quite lazy, so decided to use Katla’s breeches. Of course, when Katla came back, she wasn’t impressed and angrily killed Bardi by drowning him in a barrel of whey standing by the main door and leaving him there. Towards the end of the winter, when the level of whey in the barrel was getting low, Katla realised that she may be found out. She run away, north west in the direction of the glacier and threw herself into it. Later, an eruption came out of the glacial and headed towards the monastery.

People living in the area are aware of the powers of nature. When the volcanos erupt, the one thing that everyone is aware of, are floods that would come. Kidda told us a story of her grandfather witnessing the 1918 eruption. With his friend they were up in the mountains rounding sheep, when it started, they managed to escape on horses and hide on the highest mount in the area. Evacuation plans are made for the region, but still the locals say, they won’t be driving away crossing glacial rivers, when it happens, they will go to the same higher points like their accentors. 

After each eruption flowing lava and tephra covered large areas changing the landscape causing many farms to disappear. We went to see a farm from 11th century which was covered after an eruption, and is now being excavated by archeologists. And also had a look at some old farm buildings dating from 15th century. 

We were offered even a closer look at what it means living under volcanos. When the Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, as always everything was covered by volcanic dust. The hay that was made in 2010 after the eruption was deemed uneatable by the farm animals. And it was only this summer, that it was being dispose off, with our help. 

The hay was being taken out to the areas of sand to help the grass to grow and prevent further erosion of the landscape. The area is also covered by the so called rootless cones, which make interesting formation, where one’s fantasy can just wonder.

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